In 2015, the UN set 17 sustainable development goals; laudable aims to help humanity pursue a better future that included reducing inequality, eliminating extreme poverty and addressing climate change. The UN hoped to achieve all of them by 2030. In some areas, we’ve made impressive progress: now, only one in 25 children globally dies by the age of five, a five-fold reduction since 1960. The news is equally encouraging elsewhere; for instance, every year, more people gain access to electricity and clean water. Even so, the idea that we might actually realise all the goals by 2030 is clearly fanciful, not least because we’ve made virtually no progress in addressing climate change, as carbon dioxide emissions continue to soar. There’s a deeper problem, too — progress on one goal may hamper action or even cause regress on others. Fortunately, as a new study shows, pursuit of some goals appears to stir up far fewer conflicts than pursuing others, so our choice of priorities could make a...

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